Let me preface this thusly: as a former New England Patriots beat writer for the Providence Journal, I covered Rodney Harrison for two-plus years. I admired him as a player, a passionate, hard-hitting safety who forever carried a chip on his shoulder as a fifth-round pick from a I-AA school, and as a locker room leader valued by teammates. He could be cutting, as he was during his takedown of Freddie Mitchell before Super Bowl XXXIX, and kind, as he was one day when he pulled his Bible from his locker to read me a passage to try and offer comfort on a particularly bad day. Like so many of us, he could be emotional, but also capable of being reasonable.
Since retiring in 2008 and stepping into a commentator’s role on NBC’s “Football Night in America” studio show, Harrison has made some waves with some of his observations, and unlike other former players and coaches who always speak positively of everyone in the league, he hasn’t been afraid to be critical even of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
But during a Tuesday morning appearance on SportsTalk 790 in Houston, Harrison made a comment that is as divisive as it is ignorant.
Asked about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the National Anthem as a protest to inequities in how African-Americans and other people of color are treated in this country, Harrison started off well, using some of the now-familiar lines many have used in recent days: while Kaepernick has the right to stand up for what he believes, there are consequences, his heart is in the right place but he is going about things the wrong way, etc.
All of that is fine. Again, it’s nothing others haven’t already said over the last four days.
But Harrison continued, and his stream of consciousness went off the rails: “I tell you this, I’m a black man. And Colin Kaepernick — he’s not black. He cannot understand what I face and what other young black men and black people face, or people of color face, on an every single [day] basis. When you walk in a grocery store, and you might have $2,000 or $3,000 in your pocket and you go up into a Foot Locker and they’re looking at you like you about to steal something. I don’t think he faces those types of things that we face on a daily basis.
“If he really wants to make change, maybe what he needs to do is write a check out of that $11 million salary that he’s making and maybe donate it toward a cause or something like that for people that are fighting for injustices against people of color. That’s how you make change. And I’m not just saying, just write a check, but sitting against the National Anthem, you’re offending a lot of people.”
Biologically, Kaepernick is bi-racial: his mother is white and his father is black. As an infant, he was adopted by a white family. To look at him now, with his skin tone and as he’s let his curly hair grow unruly and a beard fill in around his jawline, it’s hard not to see a man of color.
It’s jarring to hear Harrison say Kaepernick isn’t black, and immediately raises questions about why Harrison would so plainly make that statement.
It infers that there are degrees to blackness, bringing to mind recent stories about whether Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks’ teammates believe he’s “black enough,” or of a reporter saying Robert Griffin III is a “cornball brother,” as though there’s just one way to live as a black person.
Within neighborhoods or even extended families, black children who use a certain vocabulary or maybe embrace country music may be accused of “acting white,” a pejorative that’s perhaps steeped in jealousy but also causes some shame to the person on the receiving end of it.
These things can all serve to divide. Kaepernick’s protest is to bring attention to the injustices many people of color continue to have to deal with, from the well-publicized killings of black men at the hands of police to the denigration of Muslim-Americans and dozens of other instances, big and small. It will take Americans of all colors and backgrounds to fix these wrongs.
Several hours after Harrison made his comments, and after Twitter set upon him for them, he tweeted two meek apologies, followed by a statement that he did not know Kaepernick was mixed, which strains the boundaries of credulity. Accordingly, Twitter called him on that too.
About 25 minutes later, he posted again, perhaps after his employer asked for a stronger acknowledgement that Harrison had said something he shouldn’t:
I should not have called Colin Kaepernick’s race into question during this morning’s radio interview. It was a mistake and I apologize.
— Rodney Harrison (@Rodney_Harrison) August 30, 2016
But let’s say for a moment that we believe Harrison, and that he didn’t know Kaepernick was a fellow black man. Why does that matter? If a white NFL star, let’s say Rob Gronkowski, decided to publicly protest the treatment of people of color in the United States, would Harrison really tell him to sit down and be quiet because Gronkowski hasn’t lived life as a black man?
Empathy is a human trait, no matter your religion, race, gender or economic status. Bill and Melinda Gates are two of the richest people on the planet, and through their foundation they are trying to change the lives of people who are the very opposite of them: impoverished, under-educated, and often, black- or brown-skinned. On Monday, I watched a woman on television who founded the Chicago group “Mothers Against Senseless Killings” – she hasn’t lost a child to that city’s heartbreaking street violence, but as a mother, she wants to affect change and comfort those who have.
Kaepernick is looking for change and empathy through his protest, and with his words on Tuesday, Harrison clearly showed a lack of it.